All Steps Lead to Q

“I have here a magnet, and anyone can borrow it.  You can place it anywhere, and you will see that what I am saying is true,” said Tina Paterno to a small group of people standing at the entrance of a church.  One man took the magnet and placed it on the church’s heavy door; it stuck.  It was obvious that it would because even without using a magnet, you could easily tell that the door was made of steel.  What was not, however, was the next spot that the man chose.  It was the base of a pillar near the entrance, which looked like it was made of either stone or cement, but the magnet perfectly kissed its surface.  These were not the only parts of the church that were made of steel.  Its pillars, which looked like marble and stone, were also made of steel, as well as all of its walls, ceilings, window frames, pulpit, and of course, its roof and spires.  This church, as you can tell, is not an ordinary church.  The Basilica Menor de San Sebastian, in fact, is the only all-steel building in the Philippines and the only pre-fabricated steel church in the world.  This unique Gothic architectural masterpiece, which was celebrating its 125th year, was the highlight of the first ever Q Festival and the main reason why I decided to join the event on its last day.

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The Q Festival was a nine-day event held last August 12 – 20, 2016.  The “Q” in the festival’s name stood for Quiapo, an area in the City of Manila, known for its numerous thrift stores; the Quiapo Church, which  is the home of the Feast of the Black Nazarene; fortune tellers; and vendors who sell herbal concoctions, amulets, and potions – quite ironically – just outside of Quiapo Church.  Unfortunately, Quiapo does not exactly have the most pleasant reputation.  It is messy, harsh, and crowded – an image, which Q Festival would like to change by giving people the opportunity to explore its streets and historical sites, and realize that there was more to Quiapo than just a popular church, chaos, and snatchers.

There were many activities lined up for the Q Festival such as food fairs, a sports tournament, exhibits, and concerts, but it was the walking tour that got me interested the most.  Months before the festival, I had the opportunity to visit San Sebastian for the first time and get to know it a bit when I did an impromptu DIY Visita Iglesia in Manila.  Tina Paterno, Executive Technical Director of  San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc.  (SSBCDFI) was actually there, too.  She was one of the people who gave a 30-minute talk about the historical background of and the conservation efforts being done on San Sebastian.  The church fascinated me so much that when I found out from an online advertisement that it was going to be included in Q Festival’s Walking Tours, I did not hesitate to sign up.

My journey to re-discovering Quiapo started at the Far Eastern University (FEU), where the student tour guides were from.  I must admit that I did not think that FEU had much to offer.  From the entrance, it looked small, and I thought its beige edifices did not hide much history or art.  Obviously, I was mistaken.

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The theme of FEU’s buildings are dominated by Art Deco, and many were designed by Architect Pablo S. Antonio Sr.  A lot of geometric shapes and lines and mirror imaging were apparent in the design.  Art works such as those done by Vicente Manansala and national artist Botong Francisco were also present in the university.

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Aside from the ones listed in the itinerary, there were also a handful of heritage houses and buildings that my group and I passed by.  One of them was the building of Gota de Leche, a foundation that was founded by Trinidad Rizal, sister of Dr. Jose Rizal, and Concepcion Felix in 1906.  Its primary goal back then was to help lower down the mortality rate of Filipino children by providing milk and nutrition programs to mothers.  More than a hundred years later, it continues to provide nourishment and assistance to less fortunate Filipino mothers and children.  Other heritage buildings that we saw in passing were the Paterno House and the Manuel L Quezon University.

The next part of the itinerary brought me to Casa Consulado, also known as Iturralde Mansion.  From the outside, you wouldn’t have any clue that this was once the house of the honorary consul of Monaco in the country (1950s – 1960s).  Like many of the heritage houses around in Manila, it, too, looked forlorn.   Some of its parts were warped or hanging loose.  Its paint looked like it had been scrubbed off, and some of its metal work had been damaged by rust.  Once inside though, the group and I were greeted with warmth by some people who were busy preparing something.  We were told that on that night there was going to be a chocolate tasting event.  We were encouraged to look around, which we happily did.

It was obvious that the house was in need dire of repair.  The wooden floor squeaked and felt shaky as I walked.  I made my way upstairs via the staircase, which was made of some solid hardwood.  One of the people I met there, who was also just visiting but lived around the area, mentioned that there were indeed plans of restoring it.  Details, however, were still unclear.

After a quick visit at Casa Consulado, we then made our way to San Sebastian Basilica, which was just a few steps away.  Its mint green color (not its original color, by the way) stood out; a bunch of unsightly cables drawing black lines on its walls.

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As I have mentioned earlier, the San Sebastian Basilica is one-of-a-kind.  It is the product of an international collaboration from start to finish.  Designers, engineers, workers, hailed from Spain, Belgium, France, China, England, and of course, the Philippines.  It has withstood more than 10 earthquakes since its inauguration.  However, because of its old age, some structural challenges are already present.

Since it is made entirely of steel, the main enemy of the structure is rust, which is already apparent even from the outside.  Away from plain view, corrosion has eaten away the insides of some of its columns. (Don’t worry, the damage is not enough to bring the whole structure down.)   Leaks, holes, and falling parts are also on the list of its weaknesses. Despite its problems, San Sebastian is still magnificent.  The level of craftsmanship and detail poured onto it is astounding – from its trompe l’ oeil walls and the paintings on them, to its stained glass windows, and vaulted ceilings.  And in order to preserve this beauty, San Sebastian once again would be using an international team of experts coming from diverse fields to address them.  San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc. is the organization leading the way to the church’s comprehensive decade-long restoration program.

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Unlike during my first visit, I was able to gain access to other parts of the Church like in the choir loft and the belfry, where I, on my way there using this narrow and shaky spiral staircase, saw this structure that resembled a part of a ship.  (Trivia: the Conservation team actually consults with ship builders and people who are experts in that field because of the manner and material used in its construction have similarities to building a ship.)

It was an exciting part of the tour, being at the belfry of the Basilica.  I had visited a lot of churches both here in the Philippines and abroad, but it was the first Philippine church for me to be able to reach that section.  From that point, you can see the colorful Manila skyline against the backdrop of gray clouds, giving hints of imminent precipitation.

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We had to say goodbye to San Sebastian Basilica to make way for the Padilla Gallery, an ancestral house built in the 1800s, located somewhere on Hidalgo St.  Surrounding this long white house were a few street vendors, stores, and tricycles.  Once inside, the members of the group were surrounded by numerous art pieces that reflected the vivacity of Philippine culture particularly of Manila and Quiapo.  These are owned and done by artist and real-estate scion, Manny Padilla.

We were entertained by one of his employees who supplied us a brief background of the mansion and the artworks it housed.  This was also the time when we welcomed a break from walking and the sun as we were served some snacks here.

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On our way to the next destination, Bahay Nakpil, we passed by the Tanduay Fire Department.  Here, we were given a brief historical background of the fire station by the firemen themselves and saw Manila Fire Department’s first fire truck, which was no longer in good condition, unfortunately.

The second to the last stop of the tour was Bahay Nakpil-Bautista situated on A. Bautista St.  Built in 1914, Bahay Nakpil-Bautista is a typical bahay-na-bato with details inspired by the 1900s Viennese art movement, Secessionism.  Apart from its architectural value, Bahay Nakpil-Bautista also was the residence of several historical personalities such as Andres Bonifacio’s widow, Gregoria de Jesus, who later on married Julio Nakpil, a musical composer and the Vice-President Supremo of the Katipunan appointed by Bonifacio himself; Francisco Nakpil, member of La Liga Filipina; Dr. Ariston Bautista, a doctor and member of The Propaganda Movement; Juan Nakpil, architect of the Quiapo Church (after the 1929 fire); and Angel Nakpil, architect of the Rizal Park complex.   Nowadays, it is a museum, library, exhibit venue, and community center.

Unfortunately, I was no longer able to join the tour of this house and the one for Quiapo Church since I had another appointment set for that day.  I thought five to six hours was enough to visit all the places, but clearly, it was not.  The reason why the tour took so long was not because the destinations were too distant from each other or that we had long breaks but because there was really no set schedule to begin with, and that for me was the walking tour’s biggest weakness.   There were delays and instances when too much time was spent on particular areas that were not even supposed to be included in the tour.  Although it was an added bonus – visiting places that were not part of the itinerary – the tour did not take into consideration the time of the participants.  I had been on several walking tours abroad before and each one had a fixed schedule and most of them ended on time.  (One was delayed for 30 minutes because there was an unexpected change in train schedules.)  I hope the schedule is one aspect that the organizers improve next time around.

And I do hope that there really is a next time for Q Festival because it has another significant goal apart from showing people the heritage sites and changing people’s perception of the area.  In a chat I had with the Director of FEU’s President’s Committee on Culture, Martin Lopez, he mentioned that walking tours such as this was also meant to engage the residents of Quiapo themselves in heritage conservation.  The organizers wanted to show that they themselves would greatly benefit in such activities, not only because there would be money coming in from the tourists who would visit Quiapo, but also because they will be able to take part in reviving the spirit of Quiapo, which was primarily their home.  They are a part of what makes Quiapo what it is.  If there’s anyone who should cherish it first, it should be the people residing there.  The essence of the place does not merely lie on its historical sites but also on the people who molded its past and will continually shape its future.

As I have mentioned many times before, the City of Manila is steeped in history and beauty, but at first glance, they are not quite obvious.  The city’s social problems can get in the way of people’s perception.  But if you are open, curious, even daring enough, walk its streets and you will find the richness and potential of this old city.

 

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Be a part of the restoration of San Sebastian Basilica!  Visit its Facebook page for more details.

 

Wandering in Manila

A short, impromptu DIY Manila walking tour

It was a sunny and windy Friday afternoon.  The chaos of the city was apparent in the cars and public utility vehicles that were choking the roads, the loud voices of street vendors and their customers, the dust and honking of horns that were floating in the air.  Having just been to the Presidential Museum and Library in Malacanang several minutes earlier, I was still filled with the desire to uncover more about history and the city of Manila, where many architectural treasures reside.  I, together with my sister, decided to make a quick DIY walking tour and see what developments were brewing mainly in the vicinity of Calle Escolta.

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📷: spot.ph

Calle de Escolta (or simply Escolta), which in Spanish means “to escort”, is one of the oldest streets in the city of Manila.  It used to be a thriving financial district in the 1800s, but eventually it lost its vibrancy sometime in the 1960s to Makati City.  A number of heritage buildings are present there and in the surrounding areas, but they – like many in the capital – have faded into the bustling madness of 21st century cityscape.  However, thanks largely to several private organizations and some government agencies, Escolta and its other neighboring streets are being revived.  Albeit the process is slow, it gives hope that one day more people would come to prize and preserve these historical areas.

The brief DIY tour started the moment we got off our vehicle.  The first building that greeted us was the Commercial Bank and Trust Building. This hamburger-shaped-slash-UFO-looking structure, now known as the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) Escolta Branch, was designed by Jose Maria Zaragoza.

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Those wires have really got to go.

After taking a look at the Commercial Bank and Trust Building, the streets led us to a few more locations:

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First United Building

First United Building, which was designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro, and Juan F. Nakpil in Art Deco fashion, is currently being used as a commercial building.  The first level of which houses the HUB: Make Lab, a space where people can sell and buy vintage items, handmade crafts, artworks, antique pieces, and many others.

Our impromptu tour also led us far beyond the streets of Escolta, seeing the Manila Central Post Office  and the world’s oldest Chinatown in the Binondo District along the way.

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The majestic MCPO as seen from across the Pasig River

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The city of Manila is a fascinating place: its vivid past, historical edifices, and the culture of the people who call it home make it rich.  On the surface, however, it is hard to appreciate.  With all its endemic problems like the ones linked to traffic, trash disposal, stray animals, pollution, and informal settlers, it’s hard to see its charms.  In fact, just this May, i-Discover City Walks, a travel app, called Manila as “the ugliest city in SEAsia.”  The comment garnered some angry reactions.  Eventually, i-Discover City Walks later on edited the post and apologized for using the word “ugliest,” realizing that it was too harsh a word to describe the capital.

Yes, it is true that the word “ugliest” was too strong, but instead of getting all fired up and exerting all these negativities, this should be accepted as a challenge.  Many who live in the city are fully aware of Manila’s failings to make the city as livable as it should be.  What reactions then do we expect from tourists?

Haay, Maynila, you have so much potential but you lack – more than political will – vision and a sense of history. What do you want your people to be? What identity would you like to carve?

Distinguished architect, Paulo Alcazaren, previously pointed out that many Filipinos desire to go to Europe to see and experience its plazas, historical buildings, and grand architecture not realizing that the same can actually be found here. During the short walk around some parts of Old Manila, I saw places comparable to Amsterdam’s canals, a bridge leading to Chinatown similar to one in Berlin, plazas like those in Praha, and many others. The difference, however, is that those European locations are so much cleaner, more accessible, and are more appreciated. I’m not saying Manila should copy those foreign cities. What I’m trying to say is that the city can be so much greater than what it is now if it seriously wants to.

The city of Manila celebrated its 445th anniversary just several months back. How many centuries more would it take before it truly tackles the many problems that plague both its environment and its people? When will it significantly improve so that it can keep up with modernity while preserving its historicity?

 

 

*Another Manila walking tour (this time a longer and more comprehensive one) happened several months after this one during the Q Festival last August. Details to be posted soon.   

 

Behind Malacañan’s Walls

 

There are quite a number of historical structures scattered in Manila.  Numerous churches, government and commercial buildings, plazas and monuments have been silent witnesses to the events of the past and continue to be such to those that shape the future of this capital city.  All of these sites have their own share of stories, mysteries, and even scandals, but none of them hold as much power as the one that houses the head of state – Malacañan Palace.

Malacañan Palace (or simply Malacañan) has not always been the official residence and workplace of Philippine presidents.  It started out as a private summerhouse in 1750 and was later on occupied by different Spanish and American governors.  It was only in 1935 during President Manuel L. Quezon’s time that Malacañan became the residence of presidents.  Some such as the country’s first female president, Corazon Aquino; Fidel Ramos; Joseph Estrada; Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III; and current President, Rodrigo Duterte, have opted to stay out of the Main Palace and occupied mansions and guest houses located within the Malacañan Complex instead.

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Kalayaan Hall

Malacañan Palace is not open to the public; however, a part of it is.  The Presidential Museum and Library located in Kalayaan Hall offers its visitors a peek not only into the building’s history but also of that of the nation’s itself.

I had been meaning to pay the Museum a visit for years now as a part of my quest to rediscover Manila.  Unfortunately, due to time constraints and priorities, the plan had always been pushed aside.  My sister said that I, together with my mother, had actually already been inside the main Palace when it was reopened to the public after the EDSA People Power Revolution.  Sadly, I have no memories of it because I was still too young.  This then gave me another reason to have a tour of this historical structure.

My sister and I arrived at the Malacañan Complex on a hot and quiet afternoon.  The place was not exactly what I had imagined it to be:  I had no idea that the Palace was inside a residential district.  All along, I thought it was in an exclusive compound and that it was heavily secured by guarded gates.  Well, it was secured all right as one cannot simply enter without being inspected by security personnel, but it felt like I was merely entering any other subdivision in the metro.  Inside the district, there was the San Miguel Church, some parks and markers (which are in need of some improvements and clean-up) and even some friendly neighborhood sari-sari stores.

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Old Waiting Room

 

When we got to Kalayaan Hall, only a handful of visitors were present.  They were mostly children accompanied by their guardians and a few other individuals as well.

While waiting for the tour to start, we were all asked to stay in the Old Waiting Room, the main reception area for the guests.  I was expecting that it was here that a brief presentation about the Palace’s evolution would take place as part of the tour’s introduction.  Unfortunately, the presentation of the story of the Palace’s beginnings never took place.  What did was the visitors’ (the group with the children) annoying selfie sessions, which would continue until the end of the tour.

Have a peek at some pieces of Malacañan’s past.

 

The Old Waiting Room

There are two of these – one is where the tour visitors are made to wait, and the other is where campaign materials of presidential and vice-presidential candidates are kept – from posters, shirts, flyers to buttons, baller IDs, and even candies.   A music player is present to play the famous and very catchy campaign jingle of Ramon Magsaysay, “Mambo Magsaysay,” which transports guests to the 1950s.   

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The Old Governor’s Office

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The furniture set used by Ferdinand Marcos when he declared Martial Law in 1972 is displayed here, as well as an antique TV, which shows the video of Marcos announcing the imposition of Martial Law, and the replica of PD 1081, among other things. 

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A replica of the pen used to sign the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2014

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The Osmena Cabinet Room

 

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Many of the chandeliers there are made of Czech crystal.  Cleaning a chandelier can take up to one and a half months!  It also should be supervised by the Presidential Security Group just to make sure nothing gets broken or stolen.  The Czech crystal chandeliers plus the hard wood heavily used for furniture, flooring, and ceiling certainly give Malacanan an elegant and luxurious feel.

 

 

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Quirino Council of State Room

 

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The Old Vice President’s Office

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The Main Hall, the Northeast amd Southeast Galleries

It served various purposes over the decades: as bedrooms, then into offices, and then as a function hall where dinners and lavish parties during the Marcos era were held.  Now, it houses shelves and shelves of books, busts, attires, and other memorabilia.  An area on the same floor has a dedicated section for Cory Aquino and for her son, now former President Noynoy.

 

 

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A blackboard containing a sketch of Camp Crame and EDSA.  Drawn by Fabian Ver, Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) during Marcos’ time, this shows the map where the protesters against the dictatorship of Marcos were gathered.  All it took was a go signal from Marcos and AFP probably would have obligingly bombed these areas.  

 

Every corner of Kalayaan Hall is replete with history, details I never learned from textbooks.  Being in the same room and halls where women and men of power once walked in left me with a strange mix of wonder, satisfaction, awe, and disgust.  And this came from visiting just one building in the Malacanang Complex.

Overall, the experience was a pleasant one.  It would have been better though if the tour guide had answered some of my questions relating to the Marcoses instead of evading them.  After all, I was there to learn more about history and his job was to enlighten the guests.  I understand his dodging my question about Duterte, but the previous one I think he should not have. I guess he was just being careful especially these two names were hot issues at that time.

What new stories would Malacañan weave this time for the newly elected Chief Executive?  What secrets would its walls keep?  History will reveal in time.

 

For inquiries and reservations, contact the Presidential Museum and Library through its official website.

 

How I Met the Met

Whenever I visit Manila, I often pass by and see a certain pink Art Deco building standing on P. Burgos Ave. corner Arroceros.  Parts of its façade are covered in graffiti, and litter surrounds it.  In front of the building, traffic is sometimes heavy, and undisciplined vehicles and pedestrians alike contribute to the bleak scene.  For many, this building is just another of those structures forgotten by time in Manila.  Unbeknownst to them, at an era when the number of vehicles had not yet choked the streets of the city and World War II had not transpired yet, the Manila Metropolitan Theater (often referred to as the Met), had a glorious run.  Its purpose was carried out: different shows and theatrical productions were staged – something that is hard to imagine nowadays.

 

Even when I was younger, I often wondered what its history was.  I only knew it by its name and its pink hue (which I later on learned was not even its original color).  I know I watched a play at the Met as part of my field trip during my elementary years, but my memory of it is similar to its paint that is blemished and is now peeling off.

Just like many of the buildings in Manila, the Met has been neglected by the government for several years.  There were a number of restoration projects to revive the grand theater, but they were either temporary or worse, completely unsuccessful.

Last year marked another initiative to resurrect the theater and it started when the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA) was able to purchase it from its former owner, the Government Security Insurance System (GSIS).  The news of its purchase kindled some hope that the Met would be salvaged from further decay.

(note: Click to enlarge photos and see the captions.)

One of the things you’ll immediately notice is how dark the places is.  This is because the electrical wires have been stolen, so there’s no power running in the whole structure.  It’s creepy, actually.

The NCCA, during the latter part of 2015, called for some volunteers to help them for a series of clean-up drives.  Unfortunately, the first few ones were reserved for Architectural students, preventing me and other numerous ordinary citizens to jump at the opportunity to help out.  When NCCA finally allowed the public to join, I immediately grabbed the chance to register.  I registered early because only about 60 people per drive were allowed.  Getting in was difficult; I registered twice, but twice I was not included either.  Thankfully, my third time proved to be a charm and I was able to join the concluding leg last April 30.  Since it was the last chance for the public to attend the clean-up, the NCCA decided to permit more than what was originally allowed.  I, together with my sister and some of her students from her school, as well as other volunteers from different universities, public and private offices, and even soldiers from the Philippine Air Force and the Military, formed the largest number of volunteers – almost 200!  It was beautiful to see a big gathering of volunteers working together to bring the Met back to its former glory.


The Manila Metropolitan Theater is just one of the numerous heritage buildings around Manila, and most of them, sadly, are not as lucky as the Met. They continue to deteriorate and be robbed of their belongings, and ultimately, their future.  Some are even torn down.

I hope that the government under this new administration will come to its senses and see the great significance and vast potential of these structures; heritage laws must be actually enforced.  They can be reused for new purposes, and the government can give tax incentives to those who decide to keep them and reuse them appropriately.  It must be remembered that these are not mere buildings, but structures that have been part of history of the country and the nation.

I am happy that the NCCA came up with this clean-up drive and it involved the public in the theater’s initial restoration process.  I hope that this spark would turn into a blaze and create a greater interest from the public, allowing them to appreciate history more.  Likewise, I fervently hope that this is the start in helping the government see that many people actually do care and that it should a whole lot, too.

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After the clean up on the 2F.  If we were to clean everything in this room, it would take us days! So, yes, this is already clean… relatively.

proposed plans for the Met. Photo: METamorphosis FB

 

To learn more about the restoration of the Met: head over to the NCCA page or the METamorphosis page, the official place for updates about the Met restoration.

In Times of War, In Times of Need

Numerous photographs, maps, videos, and documents depicting the horrors of the Battle of Manila 70 long years ago appear on a government website commemorating this grim part of Philippine history.  The battle, whose objective was to liberate the capital from Japanese forces during World War II, was a month-long conflict, which reduced buildings to piles of rubble and lives to mere memories for both civilians and soldiers alike.  Manila, the second most devastated Allied country during WW II, would never regain the beauty it once possessed.

Quiapo, 1945. "Seen from afar is the Main Building of the University of Santo Tomas and the art-deco designed Far Eastern University." - Philippine Presidential Museum and Library

Quiapo, 1945. “Seen from afar is the Main Building of the University of Santo Tomas and the art-deco designed Far Eastern University.” – Philippine Presidential Museum and Library

The Battle of Manila was only a part in a bigger bleak picture WW II had painted.  The atrocities of the war extended beyond the borders of the capital and left a trail of dead bodies and fractured lives in the process.  Scenes of destruction, guerilla warfare, systematic rape, the Death March, and even babies killed by the Japanese’s bayonets dominate the idea of how WW II was like in the Philippines.  But buried in all this tragedy is a touching tale of kindness of compassion not known to many people, not even to Filipinos themselves.

Jews in Manila

Jews in Manila

No one would probably connect the events of the Holocaust to the Philippines but there is, in fact, a deep link between the two.  During the early stages of the War, in 1939, the Philippines became a refuge for some 1,300 European Jews who were trying to escape the Holocaust.  Colonel Dwight Eisenhower; Paul McNutt, US High Commissioner; five business owners, the Frieder brothers; and Philippine Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon, had devised a plan to provide these Jews safety and protection from the persecution that they were experiencing back in Europe.

A film called Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge from the Holocaust documents this piece of hidden history.  A preview of which can be viewed below:

Why this part of Philippine history not mentioned in school textbooks is baffling.  It deserves recognition and appreciation.  Many people are familiar with Germany’s Oskar Schindler and Japan’s Chiune Siguhara and their efforts of helping thousands of Jews escape the Holocaust.  It’s only proper, too, that the world know about this particular magnificent gesture of moral courage.  But more importantly,  the Filipinos themselves should be acquainted with the events of this special mission, so that when they look back in the past, they may appreciate the fact that the country might had been plunged in a time of darkness, but it was still also strong enough to be a source of light and hope even for others.

At a time when many countries closed their doors on the Jews, the Philippines’ doors were wide open.  In photo, the Open Doors Monument in Rishon Leizon, Israel erected in 2009.

At a time when many countries closed their doors on the Jews, the Philippines’ doors were wide open. In photo, the Open Doors Monument in Rishon Leizon, Israel erected in 2009.

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Notes:

View more photos of the Battle of Manila on this Flickr page.  To learn more about the Battle of Manila and World War II in the Philippines in general, visit this link.

Special exhibits, film showings, and mini-conferences about the Battle of Manila titled “Manila, My City at War!” are held at the Ayala Museum from February 3 – March 3, 2015.  The documentary Rescue in the Philippines will also be screened here.  For details, visit the Filipinas Library page.

Learn more about the documentary Rescue in the Philippines.

Watch a preview of another film documenting the Philippines’ Open Door Policy.

Rescue in the Philippines’ premiered last August at the Malacañang Palace.  Watch its special coverage.

Unearthing the Past, Evoking Emotions / A Case of (Philippine) History Repeating

I had the chance to teach Philippine History for one of my students several months back. We normally had English tutorials, but since she was enrolled in a formal school and was having some difficulty with History, I was asked to help her out with the said course at least for about a few weeks.

A part of me felt relieved to be teaching a different subject other than English. I had been feeling bored with it, and I thought that a new subject would somehow reduce that boredom. I like history, so I had no problem with the task that had been given to me. There was just one problem though: it had been a long while since I read anything about Philippine history; I had already forgotten some of the events and the relevance of certain names and dates. I knew I had to brush up on History to help the student better, but generally, I thought this change would do me some good.

arrival of legaspi

Unfortunately, I failed to realize the effect of this change on my student. My student, a 14-year-old foreigner, wasn’t exactly into history, as most children her age. In addition, she didn’t have an excellent command of English, and now she was supposed to study and memorize words and phrases in another language – Spanish! Terms such as encomienda, Royal Audiencia, cumplase, Consejo de Indias, Recopilacion, corregimiento, indulto de comercio, and even the title of one of the earliest books published in the Philippines, Doctrina Christiana en Lengua Española y Tagala (and that’s not even the entire title of the book on the cover), exasperated her and compounded her predicament.

As our classes progressed, I too, became a bit frustrated. There I was with a student who didn’t like what she was studying, couldn’t understand fully or even pronounce the Spanish words properly, and was a complete sleepyhead!  Teaching that class was a challenge, but it was a job I had to perform.

Frustration was not the only thing that developed in me as time passed by. There also arose a sense of sadness. It had nothing to do with my student or our classes, though. Rather, it stemmed from the subject itself – the Philippines’ history.

The book was made for high school students, so the discussion wasn’t as comprehensive as it should be. Despite this, the abridged narration of the historical events made me remember how Spain subjugated and exploited this country – both its people and its resources – and the ways Filipinos were treated as lower and less significant than the Spaniards, the centuries of violence, unfair treatment, brainwashing, and poverty. Re-reading the narration of Philippine history led me to ask the same question my student asked me one day: Why did the colonization took more than three centuries to end? Of course, ending Spanish colonization of the Philippines was not as simple as demanding Spain to leave the country alone, but for it to happen for three hundred thirty-three years simply seemed an incredibly vast amount of time, too, wasn’t it?

front cover of Doctrina Christiana.  I was able to buy a reproduced print of the book during a Book Fair

I was able to buy a reproduced print of the book during a book fair at Instituto Cervantes de Manila

My student, who became relatively more interested in the subject later on, had to study only two and a half chapters of the Spanish era with me, but within those two and a half chapters, certain words and phrases appeared many times over. Phrases like “forced to work,” “the people suffered….,” “unfair,” “corruption,” “poverty,” and many others abound. I actually wanted to sum up those two and half chapters this way to make things easier for her: “It was a really shitty time being under Spain.” Of course, I didn’t do that. I would have made an over-generalization (or would I have not?) Besides, I couldn’t say the word “shitty” to her.

Before long, our history classes were over. As soon as her final exams were done, so were our lectures. This time, it was she who felt relieved. I, on the other hand, was experiencing – to some degree – anger. Although our classes were finished, I was still hung up on the subject. Some parts of the book especially fired me up:

1) “The masses also suffered from unfair taxation and forced labor. From 1571 to 1884, all Filipinos paid taxes to Spain… Only a minuscule part of the taxes went to public works, health and security programs for the natives. A large part of the money went to officials of the civil government and to the friars. Whatever was left in the coffers was used to finance its armed forces, the church, the bureaucracy and the Spanish expeditions to the Moluccas. Because of these expenditures, the colonial government was often in deficit. Annual infusions from Mexico became necessary. The monetary infusion was called real situado, an annual subsidy that stopped only in 1821.”

2) “Because of his relative independence from the government is Spain, the Governor-General engendered corruption in the Philippines. His position can be bought or granted as a favor. Governor-Generals had a brief term of office, so except those with pure hearts and noble demeanor, the Governor-Generals lost no time in enriching themselves. They often capitalized in the unfair taxation system and the Galleon Trade.”

3) “The King of Spain implemented some steps to curb the abuses of the Spanish officials in the Philippines. One of these was the Royal Audiencia which was founded in 1583… But these steps proved to be futile because it became easier for a corrupt official to bribe an investigator or to overturn their judgement with the use of their political influence in the Philippines or Spain.”

4) “…The alcalde mayor was often a model of graft and corruption and inefficiency. This was because most of the alcalde mayores in the Philippines were not trained for the position, and had only come to the Philippines to make themselves rich.”

5) “The provincial governor had the power to collect taxes from the people. Many took advantage of this opportunity to amass profits. The alcalde mayor forcibly collected taxes in the form of cash when harvests were abundant. He brought the produce at very cheap prices… He would hide his profits and remit to the treasurer only the minimum revenue required from his province.”

6) “The gobernadorcillo was a respected member of the community… His salary was small but just like the provincial governor, he had plenty of opportunities to profit from his position. The cabeza de barangay and other municipal officials also abused their powers.”

7) “Graft, corruption and malversation of public funds were prevalent from the provincial to the barrio levels. The public had no one else to turn to about their complaints against erring officials. Bureaucrats could easily exact revenge on their rivals. The helplessness among the natives was mirrored in their saying: “the Governor-General was in Manila, the King was in Spain, and God was in Heaven” which meant that all of them were too distant to hear the people’s cries. This abuse of power was one of the causes behind the people’s periodic uprisings against the colonial government.”

The negativity wasn’t directed towards the Spanish colonial system or anyone else in history anymore but to the people in government in the present.  I was reading a part of history yet I felt like I was reading the headlines of current broadsheets!  You see, around the time my History class was happening, a significant political scandal erupted: the pork barrel scam. This scandal, to simplify it, was the issue of public money being used to fund fraudulent projects, and millions and millions of pesos supposedly going to crooked government officials’ pockets, too.

photo courtesy of edangara.com

This wasn’t the first time that some Philippine legislators and other government officials had been involved in graft and corruption scandals, but this one was too much. The extent of corruption and the amount of money involved were tremendous. Millions of Filipinos are still living in destitute and many things – basic things – are still needed to be provided for and then you hear how a minute portion of society are enjoying the hard-earned money of the taxpayers! Who wouldn’t be enraged by that?

The resentment was further fueled when one of the world’s worst disasters, Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), hit and devastated the central Philippines. The government should have done its job focusing on essential projects like DISASTER PREPAREDNESS and management, building stronger and decent evacuation centers, and even upgrading weather equipment and warning systems. But no, they were too busy enriching themselves.

More than a hundred of years have passed since Spain left the Philippines, but it still feels like the Filipino people are still suffering the same way they did while under Spain. Only this time, the enemy is no longer the colonial masters but the Filipinos themselves. And that is what makes all these things the sadder.

When will it end? When will the Filipinos be truly free?

 

Of Spain and Other Demons*

A friend of mine recently expressed in one of her blog entries her affinity towards Latin American culture – its language, literature, films, and even sports. Although she did not really give clear reasons for being attracted to it, she did propose a theory as to the basis of this attraction – the similarity of history between Latin America and the Philippines.

spain_flag

Indeed, colonizers such as Spain, UK, France, Holland, and Portugal played a crucial role in determining the histories and cultures of Latin America and The Philippines (for The Philippines, only Spain), although the two lie in different areas of the globe. The socio-political landscapes of these two worlds have their share of similarities – from American sponsored dictatorships during the Cold War, their struggles for liberation from their colonizers, religion, to their current fraught economies, and even in their telenovelas – just to name a few. Some even liken The Philippines with Latin America more than with its neighboring Asian countries.

It is, without a doubt, incredible how the former colonizers both shaped and destroyed the countries that they conquered and made their colonies become closer and similar despite geographical distance. But what interests me more is the idea that the former colonizers -besides leaving behind physical traces of their presence in the former colonies’ spaces and influence in their ways of life – had somehow also left a sort of fascination and/or admiration in the hearts of those people they had subjugated, like the connection between the two parties are not just limited to politics and history. It seems to me that they had also left a rather satisfactory impression in the hearts of the former colonies even long after the colonization is over – akin to an emotional residue of some sort, making the political, deeply personal.

I share the sentiment of my friend but in a slightly different way. I feel attracted to my former colonizer instead to a “fellow colonized country.”

Ever since I was in high school, I had always wanted to see Spain.  My primary reason was simple: to see the country that had colonized mine. I wanted to see for myself and understand this country – what was it with Spain? What was so great about it? In my desire to one day step on its soil, I also made a goal to learn its language – a language that was denied to the Filipinos during the colonization era. Simply put, my desire to visit Spain had been for the longest time, fueled by historical/political reasons.

And I did finally get to fulfill that wish a few summers ago. I must admit though that my desire to see the place was no longer restricted to political reasons but also to enjoy at the same time the sights and sounds of  what it had to offer. I was after all, just a tourist too. Unfortunately, 5 days spent in Barcelona was not enough to achieve my main objectives. Obviously, if one really wants to study a country, one should really be immersed in its culture far longer than that immensely minute amount of time. Well, consider my visit as an “initial ocular inspection.”

philippines_flag

Upon reading my friend’s blog, I was reminded of a certain poem I read earlier last year (which is more or less connected to her story and most relates to mine). For those who cannot understand Spanish, I’ll try my best to translate it. For those who can understand the language and see that I have made some mistakes in my translation, well, sorry, I haven’t really practiced it in a loongg time! Feel free to point out the errors to me.

* * *

ESPAÑA
By Marra PL Lanot (from her book, “Witch’s Dance at Iba Pang Tula sa Filipino at Español”)
España, como no te conozco
quiero conocer tus sierras
tus montañas, tus colinas.
Quiero saber las raíces de los árboles
que rezan en las cumbres.
Quiero conocer el otro páis
de nuestros héroes como Rizal y Luna,
la Mamá del pasado,
la Reina de Filipinas
que nunca nos abandonó.
Quiero entender los gritos de alegría
sobre la sangre de los pobrecitos toros.
Quiero oír las canciones de los gitanos,
comprender el fuego del flamenco.
Quiero ver las olas que abrazan las piedras
y escuchar el silencio de las estrellas.
Quiero saber el sello en el escudo
de los siglos después del perdido
de las armadas.
Quiero comprender porqué los colonizados
sueñan viajar a tu tierra
a pesar de la espada y de la cruz,
a pesar de todo.

* * *

SPAIN
Spain, as I do not know you,
I want to be acquainted with your mountain ranges,
Your mountains, your hills.
I want to know the roots of your trees
That pray at the summits.
I want to know the other country
Of our heroes like Rizal and Luna,
The Mother of the Past,
The Queen of the Philippines
Who never left us.
I want to understand the shouts of joy
Upon the blood of the poor bulls.
I want to hear the songs of the gypsies,
Understand the fire of flamenco.
I want to see the waves that embrace the stones
And listen to the silence of the stars.
< I want to know the seal on the coat of arms of the
centuries
after the loss of the armies> (?)
I want to understand why the colonized
Dream of traveling to your land
Despite of the sword and the cross,
Despite of everything.

“Despite of everything.”  – I just think this is a perfect line to end the poem.

Yes, despite centuries of oppression and subjugation, bloodshed and coercion, why are we still attracted to our former colonizers?  Why is there somewhat a sense of nostalgia lingering in the hearts and minds of the former colonies?  And I am no longer limiting the discussion to Spain, but even to Japan, and most especially to US (who, according to historians, had actually treated the country worse than Spain did.  Ironically, the US conquest is the one that is most likely to be forgotten by Filipinos.)

Now, several questions are filling my head:

1.    Is there something more to historical connections to explain the attraction of a former colony towards a specific former colonizer or that is just about it?

2.    Do a lot of Filipinos have a similar sentiment?  How about with nationals of other former colonies?  Do Mexicans also dream of seeing or further deepening their knowledge of Spain?  How about the Congolese with France? Kenyans with UK?  Indonesians with Holland?  Koreans with Japan?  (and the list goes on and on…)

3.    Would it make a difference if the former colony is now developed or still a developing nation?  If so, would the feeling of fascination or attraction be deeper with those in the developing / underdeveloped nations compared to those of the developed ones?  For example, would Haitians feel the sentiment more than Canadians do?  Somalis more than Australians?  Or would it actually be more prominent with the developed countries?  Or merely the same?

4.    Do the nationals of the former colonizers share this same feeling towards the country of a former colony or is this attraction limited to the former colonies alone?

This then makes me wonder whether or not all the decolonized nations are already truly free from their colonizers.

____________

* titled adapted from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ book, “Of Love and Other Demons”